After nearly being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, the art of Cambodian classical dance
is again under threat, this time by the curse of underfunding.
Stephen O'Connell, Lon Nara and Vann Chan Simen visit the last bastion of Cambodian
classical dancing and learn of the troubled past and uncertain future of the Kingdom's
most distinctive cultural art.
In the cool of the morning, dozens of girls arrive at Phnom Penh's Royal University
of Fine Arts. Dressed in the uniforms of ordinary students, the girls giggle and
gossip as they make their way down the dusty path to the dance hall.
There they start another day of rigorous training, learning the ritualistic dance
of Cambodia's royal court - an ancient art that has its origins in India and was
refined in the time of the Angkorian kings.
Long pieces of cloth, colored red or blue, are taken from bookbags. As the girls
wrap the lengths around their waists, friends help each other with the folding and
twisting needed to form Kaben - the traditional pantaloons worn by court dancers.
Their white school blouses are then removed to reveal shimmering silk aavriph, tight-fitting
blouses in an array of bright colors.
Once in costume the girls limber up, pulling hands and fingers back to a degree made
possible only by years of painful practice.
An instructor arrives, stick in hand, and the girls quietly take their places in
orderly rows. One of the older student starts to chant. When joined by the voices
of the other girls, the hall fills with a haunting rhythm as the training in the
divine dance begins.
These girls are just some of the 436 students of classical and folk dance now enrolled
at the Royal University of Fine Arts. The school - established by King Norodom Sihanouk
in 1965 - is dedicated to keeping Cambodia's ancient performing arts alive in a world
increasingly dominated by television and karaoke.
In Angkorian times, these dancers were considered the embodiment of apsara, celestial
angels that brought messages from the Gods. Through their movements, the dancers
interpreted the epic stories of the Hindu Ramayana.
After the fall of Angkor, the royal dance of the Khmers went into decline, but was
kept alive in the courts of Siam's kings. French colonialists struggled to revive
the Khmer ballet early last century and had to import dancers from Siam to teach
the lost skills.
The traditions of the royal ballet suffered another near-fatal blow during the rule
of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Only a handful of dancers survived the brutal
One of those survivors now responsible for passing the skills and traditions to the
next generation is 66-year-old Ruos Kong, a master of Khmer classical dance.
Kong's own study of dance began inside the royal palace some 58 years ago. "My
auntie was also a dance instructor and I asked her to help me enter the palace's
dance school," she said.
Kong recalls being trained with hundreds of other students who were instructed in
the graceful movements of royal dance by instructors whose lessons were fortified
with steely discipline.
"If the student did not remember their moves then they were punished,"
Kong said. "I had difficulty with my training at the first - especially bending
my hands to make them flexible."
The teachers might have been intimidating, but Kong was not afraid of the Queen and
"Old people had instructed me how to pay proper respect to them," she said.
"I used to perform classical dance for the King's distinguished guests such
as President Sukarno and the French general, Charles de Gaulle".
She also performed on stages across Asia, Europe and the United States.
"After the coup in 1970, King Sihanouk left for a foreign country. Most of the
dancers abandoned the palace due to the bad political situation. When the Khmer Rouge
took Phnom Penh, all the dancers fled."
Kong said she hid her background as a dancer from the Khmer Rouge because the regime
considered performers to be enemies.
She believes only about 10 members of the Royal dance troupe survived the years of
"After the Khmer Rouge regime, I tried to remember all the classical dancing
styles so I could teach, but my hands were no longer flexible."
Kong feels that many of today's dance students must bear too great a financial burden
in the pursuit of mastering their art. "During my time, the royal couple funded
us and gave food. We had monthly allowance provided by the royal couple," said
She strongly believes the spirit of this ancient Cambodian art can only passed on
by Khmer elders. "It is very important to learn the Khmer dance from old people.
To lose our dance would be like razing Angkor Wat to the ground. Khmer people cannot
study their dance from foreigners, but only from their own people."
Kong is dismissive of the artistic merits of modern western styles of dance that
are increasingly popular with a new generation of young Cambodians.
"Anybody can teach disco dancing".
Em Theay, 68, is another royal dancer who survived the KR.
Her mother was a cook for the royal couple, King Suramarit and Queen Nearireath -
King Sihanouk's parents - and she was born in the royal couple's home.
"When (King Sihanouk) was enthroned, I was moved into the royal palace for dance
training because the royal couple enjoyed my dancing very much. I was seven-years-old."
"The royal couple asked the teacher what role I would play. The teacher replied
that I would play a giant. So I trained to dance as a giant," said the diminutive
The daily dance training would begin shortly after sunrise.
"At dawn, we would rub the dew from the morning grass on our hands in order
to make them supple."
"In the evenings the classical musical band performed and we would sing while
the royal couple played flutes."
Theay was married at 18 to a soldier assigned to the Royal Palace.
"Sadness and happiness mingled together," she said of her life as a court
dancer. "I was most happy and proud when I performed on the stage."
After the coup against Prince Sihanouk, the Lon Nol government asked most of the
royal dancers to leave the palace, only allowing a few to stay. Then came the Khmer
"After 1975 I tried hard to remember the traditional songs. Because I was sick
I couldn't work so the Khmer Rouge soldiers let me look after children in the village.
I sang the songs to lull the children to sleep, practicing the words so I would not
"The Khmer Rouge soldiers would listen discreetly as I practiced. They knew
my background as a dancer. One day they asked me to perform a dance in the rice paddies.
The soldiers laughed at me and seemed happily surprised so I just danced and sang
Theay was the mother of 18 children - only five survived the Killing Fields.
Immediately after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, she went to Battambang
where she began to train young dancers.
In 1980 the Ministry of Arts and Culture learned she had survived and Theay was invited
to Phnom Penh to train dancers before taking up her present position with the Ministry
"Now my hands are not flexible like before, but I just tell the students to
follow my movements."
For Theay, classical dance is more than just a series of pretty movements. "It
uplifts the Khmer soul. Though the apsara dancers carved at Angkor Wat are made of
stone, classical dance is still alive."
But like Kong, not all forms of dance are equal in Theay's eyes. "I dislike
disco. Disco dancers should not go too far - it is not good to go too far."
Chhorn Yana, 21, has studied dance for eight years at the Royal University of Fine
Arts and she wants to follow in the footsteps of Kong and Theay. "I love classical
dance and I have trained very hard to get where I am today."
Yana has vivid memories of the long, painful hours of flexibility training, the tortuous
bending of hands and legs.
"It was very painful when the teachers bent them during my early years of training.
My teachers are very strict, but I want to become a dance teacher when I leave school.
My father and uncles are dancers, so I want to succeed them in my generation."
"I used to feel nervous when I first performed, but now I am used to it. I have
no worries when I dance," said Yana.
But Keo Malis, Director of the university's dance faculty, said he is nervous about
the school's future. He said the facilities are overcrowded and in desperate need
of renovation. "The roof has many holes and the students can't train when it
The students, mostly from Phnom Penh, each receives a 'scholarship' from the government
- but at 3,000 to 6,000 riel per month it doesn't help a great deal.
During the 1980s, the Ministry of Culture had a policy of hiring Fine Arts graduates.
Those graduates had two options - either work as instructor at the school, or
work in the ministry. But after 1990, these guaranteed jobs ceased to exist. Graduates
these days must fend for themselves. Some find jobs in Cambodia's tourist areas dancing
at hotels or restaurants. Many find careers outside dance.
"I can see the school disappearing one day soon because it's difficult to find
successors for the teachers," said Malis. "If our students can not replace
us when we retire. Training them for nine years might just prove fruitless."
"If a culture is strong, then a society will be strong. Cambodian culture has
existed for a thousand years. If Cambodians do not strive to maintain their heritage,
they will lose their unique identity."
Malis said the King used to be a great promoter of Cambodian arts and culture, but
with advancing age and a host of pressing problems, royal support has declined.
The greatest hope for the survival of Cambodia's rich and ancient culture lies with
today's aspiring young artists.
Rith Nimol, 18, is a sixth year dance student at the Royal University. "When
I first saw the royal dance performance on TV, I fell in love with it. I then asked
my auntie to let me enter the dancing school."
"I train four hours daily and it is very difficult. I have to bend my hands
every day so that they look beautiful. We cannot perform if our hands are not flexible.
Sometimes I was beaten by my instructors because I could not do it properly. But
I still hope to become a dance teacher."
"The royal dance is very important to Cambodia because it allows us to share
our culture with the world. It is so beautiful," said Nimol.
"One day I hope to dance for the King."